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As most people who’ve tried it can attest, fire breathing is one of the simplest and showiest of the fire arts. Literally any fool with a lighter and a shot of the good stuff can produce a fireball. The trick is to do it safely, on a regular schedule, in front of an audience, in variable environments, etc.
Many people will be familiar with fire breathing as “the bartender’s trick”. A shot of 151 and a bic lets them pop off a fireball at will. What the audience doesn’t take into account are the myriad of ‘knowns’ involved. The bartender is doubtlessly familiar with the air conditioning system, so no surprises for “wind”. They space out their tricks. Holding a shot of high proof in your mouth is similar to drinking part of a beer: You get some amount of alcohol absorbing straight into the skin. Each drop decreases your judgement and dexterity. The bartender probably also knows the flammability of the items around, and most importantly, above. There’s a sink nearby with a wet rag always in reach, plus probably another person behind the bar…. just in case. And speaking of the bar, there’s a hard-separation between the bartender and the guests; helping to insure their safety.
When people try to replicate the “bartenders trick” at the next frat party is when viral video magic happens. They won’t have a bar to separate them, they’re likely to get talked into repeated attempts making them drunker and drunker. They’ll have no one watching their back (except to film them on fire). But can they produce a fireball? Yes. What are the odds they be wounded and posted online for the world to laugh at? Pretty high, or at least much higher than a safety conscious professional breather.
Can we make you a better breather here? Maybe, maybe not. Can we help keep you out of the hospital? Hopefully.
Specific dangers of fire breathing will be based on the specific fuels used and in some cases the environment. Unfamiliarity with any of the variables is one major source of accidents, and not following your instincts is another. But regardless of the myriad of ways to get it wrong, the actual dangers break down to three elements:
Unlike other fire tools, when you get the fire aspect of fire breathing wrong it’s rarely a little “kiss”. Any fuel in wind can experience blow-back where the flame is pushed back onto the breather or on something else (drapes, audience, etc). Avoid any situation with unpredictable wind.
Another problem with fast fuels (like alcohols, naphtha, and certain exotic blends with low flash points), is flash-back. This is when the stream of fuel emitted by the breather plunges into the oral cavity and causes a minor explosion. Severe flash-backs can damage facial soft tissues, lungs and esophagus, even do minor dental damage.
The heat from sustained or regular breathing, even under normal conditions, can burn facial hair, chap lips, damage vision, and depending on the moves attempted, burn other parts of the body. Appropriate protective gear should be used for the types of stunts attempted.
Inhalation of unburned fuels can produce one of several problems. Organic liquids (like alcohol or veggie oil) can become a choking hazard if inhaled. Often the taste of such liquids can be a surprise for new breathers and standard reflexes can cause an inhalation issue. Inorganic liquids like petrol-fuels (lamp oil) have a similar choking issues as organic fuels but cannot be naturally evacuated from the body. Organic substances can be absorbed or dissolved, say in the lungs, however lamp oil will simply spread out into thin film and interfere with the intake of oxygen and the elimination of carbon dioxide (a process known as “chemical pneumonia”. Powders can also become a choking hazard and can emulate chemical pneumonia, however powders do not present the “thin film issue” unless a great amount of powder is inhaled and the powder is particularly fine.
In the cases of powders and inorganic liquids, the only method of removal is manually: though coughing or via the cilia. Smokers should be aware that the cilia in the lungs are severely hampered by the chemicals in cigarettes. Also, minor cases of chemical pneumonia are cumulative if they occur before the last event has completely cleared. Non smokers can expect to eliminate most foreign matter in the lungs in about a week. Smokers should assume a month or more, depending on the severity of the habit. So, a barely noticeable case of pneumonia compounded by another case a couple days later will feel worse the second time even if the same amount is inhaled. A third exposure will be even worse, etc. And as many hospitals will point out: the line between “difficult to breathe” and “not able to breathe” is an extremely fine one. If respiratory problems occur for more than a few minutes after fire breathing, please seek professional help immediately. also, if a great deal of fuel is inhaled, immediate hospitalization will be required.
Absorbing fuels in to the eyes, skin, mouth, or external sources is the third largest hazard. Powders can completely cut off vision until cleansed. Liquid fuel in the eyes can blur and distort vision. even the purest liquid fuel can cause skin rashes with regular exposure. “Dirty” fuels (like charcoal lighter fluid, lighter fuel, even certain fuels specifically intended for breathing) can contain benzenes and exotic petrochemicals that, in some rare cases, cause rupturing of the sensitive tissues of the mouth, genitalia, and internal organs.
Absorbed fuels into drapes,floor, props, even some fire tools can pose a a variety of hazards from increasing flamability to slip-and-fall hazards.
Though not the “traditional” method of breathing, fine grain organic powders are finding a strong niche in the breathing world. Such powders can be: ground walnut shells, coffee creamer, corn starch, or [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycopodium_powder Lycopodium]. Typically, the perception of the safest way to use these powders is to stuff them into a specially designed straw. This keeps the powder from mixing with saliva, that can causing a build-up of organic goo in the mouth. Many breathers, however attempt it without a straw. This is where the biggest danger lies. It can be very difficult to establish the difference between the gooey build up and the dry powder, and inhaling the powder can lead to massive choking. However, done properly, powder breathing can produce all the same effects that liquid breathing can, just with a steeper learning curve.
Methanol, Ethanol and Isopropanol all have their ups and downs. All are “fast” fuels, so their capable of flash-back. None are particularly common in the professional community, however breathing with Isopropanol has been known to set Fire marshals more at ease than other liquid fuels. And all of them are capable of dissolving metal salts to create colored flame fireballs.
*Methanol is one of the few fuels that can be used for mixing colored flame fuels, and it’s extremely fast. It’s known for causing blindness in those who accidentally imbibe it, instead of ethanol. It does not have to be drunk to enter the body: inhalation and direct contact both allow entry. It is safest if this fuel is sealed at all times, and when opened, should be in heavily ventilated areas or outdoors. Generally speaking it’s commonly held that the potential for colored fireballs is simply not worth the contact with methanol. Consult a physician on any major contact.
*Ethanol is the active ingredient in consumable alcohol. It’s obvious downside is that when ingested, it can make you drunk; ie impair judgement and reduce dexterity. Ethanol can also be used to make colored flames, but the process of dissolving the salts takes much longer. Left open, ethanol will suck moisture out of the air and reduce it’s active ingredient ratio as time passes. So the less time spend open the better. Also, the higher the concentration, the more likely oral contact will pass ethanol through the skin to the blood. So holding a shot of 151 for a few minutes could have the identical effect of drinking a beer or mixed drink. This process is compounded with each fireball leading to a “stealth buzz” for active breathers of ethanol.
*Isopropanol, or “Rubbing Alcohol”, is a safe if bad tasting alternative to other alcohols. It’s readily available in 99% concentration, is legal for use in dry counties and all ages, will not make you drunk or blind. However, initial exposure to quantities of iso can make some people nauseated or sleepy. It’s for this reason it was once used as an anesthetic. Although available in 50% or less concentration, you’re not likely to be able to produce a fireball in any concentration less than 70%. Also, repeated exposure to isopropanol can severely dehydrate any skin surface it contacts. Moisturizing immediately after attempted breathing should be a regular practice as well as breaks every half dozen fireballs. Isopropanol is exceptionally poor at dissolving salt colorants.
[[Naphtha]], sometimes white gas, mineral spirits, or other monikers is the fastest liquid fuel with the lowest flash point available. In many cases, it’s too low for trade measurement devices to measure. It is incredibly dangerous for fire performers in pure form (white gas) and none too smart in it’s adulterated forms ( charcoal fluid, zippo fuel, benzenes, etc). It’s used by performers looking for large fireballs. Technique isn’t needed to get this fuel to produce big flames. However, because of the necessity for full velocity spits, it cannot be safely used for any advanced stunts. Naphthas evaporate whenever they’re exposed to air, even sitting on ice, so they should never be left open indoors.
[[Paraffin]]s like Lamp oil and many Kerosenes have flash points above room temperature making them “slow fuels”. Technically mineral oil, motor oil, and a high number of high viscosity liquids fall into this category, but are generally unused by the community. The biggest challenge with slow fuels is finding a consistent product. Many Kerosenes vary highly from one batch to another. Their MSDS will even reflect this by providing a wide range of flash points. Also, many lamp fuels contain small or large percentages of thiols, benzenes, naphthas, and other chemicals that can make it taste like gasoline. These fuels also have some variety from batch to batch. Highly purified products (for in-home burning) tend to be the favorites among professional breathers. Ultra Pure lamp oil, and certain grades of ShellSol comprise about 95% of all breathing products used. The biggest down side to paraffins is the possibility for chemical pneumonia. So great care must be maintained to avoid the following situations:
*Direct oral inhalation – ie holding fuel in your mouth and inhaling through your mouth
*Indirect oral inhalation – inhaling through your mouth shortly after spitting with fuel residue in the oral cavity
*Unburnt vapor inhalation- breathing in through nose or mouth where unburned mist may be lingering
Paraffins can also cause skin rashes with prolonged or repeated exposure. Washing any contact areas as soon as possible, particularly for regular breathers, is highly recommended.
===Biofuels and Veg oil ===
While many attempts at using ‘alternative oils” for breathing have been tried, the practice never seems to quite catch on. Fermented coconut juice (technically an alcohol), peanut oil, 100% biodiesel, and similar products have been attempted with varying degrees of success. The two obvious benefits of these oils is that 1) they’re organic, unlike napthas and paraffins, so the body’s cells can absorb, utilize or evacuate them, and 2) plant based oils are incredibly pure and consistent products no matter who makes them or when they’re purchased. Unfortunately, it seems that the “organic” components of these oils are precisely what makes them difficult to use as breathing fuels: double bonds, reactive ends, and cis-trans reactions make these molecules vary hard to vaporize.